Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula
Run Time: 117 mins
When he is working with the correct material, director M. Night Shyamalan is pretty much untouchable. That was the case in the early part of his career with ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Signs’ and my personal favourite of his ‘Unbreakable’. However after this rise to fame, Shyamalan then ran into trouble and his next films were each worse than the last culminating in ‘The Last Airbender’ and ‘After Earth’. Shyamalan had pretty much committed career suicide and no-one really wanted him to work on a film due to this poor reputation. In 2015, Shyamalan teamed up with Blumhouse Productions, a micro-budget horror production behind hits such as ‘Insidious’, ‘Sinister’ and ‘The Purge’ to make a comedy-horror film that he personally financed called ‘The Visit‘. I found a lot to like in it and thought it was a step in the right direction for him but it didn’t manage to reach the heights of some of his earlier work. ‘Split’ is the next step in Shyamalan’s comeback and tells the story of a man suffering with dissociative identity disorder who has 23 personalities and is played by James McAvoy. This is easily the meatiest role McAvoy has ever been able to land and this has looked like a promising vehicle for him to star in. McAvoy’s character kidnaps three teenage girls, the leader of which is played by Anya Taylor-Joy, an actress who I really respect in her rise in the film industry and Betty Buckley stars as McAvoy’s psychiatrist who has devoted her life to helping people with this disorder. Again, this has been distributed by Blumhouse Productions and its budget is a low $9 million so slightly more for Shyamalan to work with compared to $5 million for ‘The Visit’. It all sounds promising on paper and the reviews have indicated this to be the case.
‘Split’ is frequently entertaining, very competently directed and features some powerhouse sequences. It is one of Shyamalan’s best works. I will not be going into spoilers but Shyamalan’s signature twist is one of his best and one of the best twists of the decade so far – it is so, so clever. Shyamalan’s twists of late haven’t been able to shock compared to some of his earlier work but this might potentially be his best one he’s ever done. However, when one focuses on how ‘Split’ functions purely as a film, it is not perfect. It is overlong and way too exposition heavy which derails the film a little. There is a near-perfect 100 minute film in here if a lot of this exposition was omitted and this would make the run time more economical.
Shyamalan manages to get some great performances out of the actors in this film and the standouts are both James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy. McAvoy gets a lot to work with here and gives a career-best performance and without spoilers, really goes to extreme lengths at times with his performance. Anya Taylor-Joy more than manages to hold up to McAvoy and Shyamalan gives her character a great character arc to work with that is suitably developed throughout the film. The other two girls who are kidnapped played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are largely throwaway in terms of their characters function to the narrative but both do the best with they have to work with. Betty Buckley’s character is problematic. Whilst she gives a good performance, her character is purely in the film for exposition purposes which as mentioned, brings the quality of the film down.
The story that Shyamalan has crafted fires on all cylinders and the film’s twist gives a completely different spin on what you have just witnessed and thus, the film is ripe for repeat viewings. The film is not too dissimilar from other thriller films of late that have dealt with a kidnapping for example the near-perfect ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ and the flawed but suitably nasty ‘Don’t Breathe’ and ‘Split’ manages to hold up. Both McAvoy and Taylor-Joy’s character receive strong character arcs and we really end up caring for these characters, even McAvoy whose character can be particularly nasty at times.
The score by West Dylan Thordson is brilliant – a departure from Shyamalan’s normal collaborations with James Newton Howard, Thordon’s score features some memorable riffs and manages to compliment the dark, brooding mood of the film. The cinematography by Mike Gioulakis is equally brilliant and he was responsible for shooting one of my favourite films of 2015, ‘It Follows’ and he does just as good a job here and really manages to encapsulate the claustrophobia and discerning mood the film creates.
Overall, ‘Split’ is a great step in the right direction for Shyamalan and if he had managed to trim out the exposition by Betty Buckley’s character which is excessive in nature which would have shortened the film’s run time, the film would pretty much be perfect. However despite this mis-step, ‘Split’ is largely successful and features great performances, a twisty and intriguing narrative topped off with a twist of epic proportions. It ranks as one of his best works and if you are a fan of the films that Shyamalan first started out making in his character, I would deeply urge you to go and see this film at the earliest opportunity.